If there is anything the cities of the UK can boast about, it’s their history. If only walls could talk, I’m sure we would hear all sorts of tales. Another great think the UK possesses is an excellent train network, this itinerary will focus on the best UK historic cities to visit by train.
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London – 4 days
Whilst London might be filled with ultra modern sky scrapers and architecture, it is still home to a huge amount of historic sites. International travellers are most likely to start their journey in London so I thought it was best to start here too.
London’s beginnings started in Roman England in the year 47AD, making the city over 2,000 years old. Since then it has seen civil wars, plots to bring down the government, it was the head of the world’s largest empire, and it is home to the most recognised Royal Family.
The historic changes can be seen in the city’s architecture, and that is what I love about it so much. Walking through the city you will see pieces of history from the Roman times, the Turdors, the Elizabethan era, the Georgians, Edwardians, and a huge Victorian influence. All of this history sits alongside world leading architecture from the 21st century.
Historic hotels to stay in in London
If you are wanting a history tour of the UK then you might as well stay in some traditional historic hotels, surely! Opening in 1865, The Langham has played hosts to guests such as Charles Dickens and Napoleon III, it has also been mentioned in a number of Sherlock Holmes novels.
Brown’s Hotel is another historic icon in London and is widely regarded as London’s oldest hotel. Since the 60’s it has gained an elite guest list from Monarchs to Presidents, and was even the venue in which London’s first ever telephone call was made.
Things to do in London if you love history
Of course there are hundreds of things to do in London, but you found this post because you want to experience the history, right?
Tower of London – an absolute must. Over 1,000 years old, the building of the Tower of London was ordered by William the Conqueror and continues to house the Crown Jewels.
Pre-book your tickets here.
Hampton Court Palace – The beloved home of King Henry VIII, Hampton Court is a brilliant day out. Located on the edge of London, visitors can marvel at the state apartments of the palace, the King’s private chapel, and enjoy the beautiful gardens and parkland that surround it.
Pre-book your tickets here.
Tower Bridge – Often mistakenly called London Bridge, Tower Bridge is far more beautiful! Construction of the bridge began in the late 1800s, originally with high-level walkways that were designed so the public could still cross the Bridge when it was raised. These walkways were soon closed and the bridge became heavy with vehicular traffic. However, the walkways have reopened and with a glass bottom so you can see everything below you!
Pre-book your ticket here.
Museum of London – My personal favourite, the Museum of London is free to enter and is a great place to learn about the city’s history from start to finish. The original site at the Barbican has closed and it has been temporarily moved to Docklands whilst its new home in Smithfields is made ready.
St Paul’s Cathedral – With a beautiful interior and panoramic city views, St Paul’s Cathedral is a must visit on a trip to London. It was the wedding venue of the then Prince Charles and Lady Diana, there are 4 daily tours of the cathedral floor and crypt led by cathedral guides. The most popular part of the cathedral is the Whispering Gallery which is 257 steps high.
Pre-book your ticket here.
Take a day trip to Windsor
Known around the world as the home town of the Queen, Windsor is a great day trip from London. The original Windsor Castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1070, this was rebuilt as the Gothic stone castle we can visit today.
Most visitors go to Windsor for the sole purpose of seeing Windsor Castle and its beautiful 13-acre estate. Tickets include an audio tour which guides you around the castle precincts, state apartments and St George’s Chapel, where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were laid to rest.
Windsor town is small and easily explored within an hour or two, there are plenty of places for lunch or afternoon tea. If you find you have some time left over, walk over the bridge into Eton, a sweet village with some brasseries, small local shops, and of course, Eton College, the school of choice for the Royals.
The easiest mode of getting to Windsor from London is train. Sightseers can board the train at London Waterloo and arrive at Windsor Riverside and Eton station in under an hour. The trains usually run every 30 minutes and a return trip costs £22. Alternatively you can take a quick route from Paddington but you will need to change trains at Slough and this will bring you into Windsor and Eton Central station, tis can take as little as 22 minutes and costs £24. I would recommend using Trainline to check train times and book your journey.
Cambridge – 2 days
Especially beautiful on a warm spring day, Cambridge is a great addition to a UK historic cities itinerary. Cambridge is timeless, it is one of those rare small cities that has managed to continue to thrive, and it hasn’t been overtaken by huge modern developments.
The quickest way from London to Cambridge is to take the train from St Pancras, this takes usually around 50 minutes and costs £29 for a single ticket. Make sure you pre plan your journey, I recommend Trainline, as the trains sometimes depart from neighbouring St Pancras Station.
If you choose to drive instead, Cambridge is around a 1 hour 45 minute drive up the M11 motorway. The city centre is not car friendly and parking is expensive so if driving, make sure to choose a hotel with its own car park.
Best places to stay in Cambridge
The Graduate Hotel is a characterful property on the riverside, it offers a great restaurant and garden. The University Arms is a charming alternative with roll top baths and beautiful city views. The Clayton Hotel closer to the train station is a chic, more modern hotel, well-known for its delicious afternoon tea.
Things to do in Cambridge
Go punting – Available all year round, punting along the River Cam is the best way of viewing the colleges from the outside. Many punting companies now offer afternoon teas and even pizzas on their tours, and on sunny days you might get a visit from the Prosecco punt whilst making your way down the river.
Pre-book your punting experience here.
Kings’ College Chapel – Commissioned by King Henry VII in 1446, King’s College is an iconic part of Cambridge University and home to a beautiful chapel. The chapel has the world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling and in late spring and summer visitors can walk amongst the wildflower meadow.
Pre-book your entry here.
St John’s College – Open between 10am and 4pm, St John’s College is a great college to visit. Founded in 1511, St John’s College is one of the largest in the University of Cambridge and home to the legendary Bridge of Sighs.
Entry can be paid on arrival, please check the St John’s College website before visiting to make sure it’s open.
The Fitzwilliam Museum – Free to visit and no need to pre book, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was founded in 1817, housing a world-renowned collection of over half a million beautiful works of art, masterpiece paintings and historical artefacts.
Eat a Chelsea Bun from Fitzbillies – Made from a sweet bun dough, rolled around a mixture of currants, brown sugar and spices, the delicious Fitzbillie Chelsea Buns are then cut to give their spiral shape. Fitzbillies are known all over Cambridgeshire for having the BEST Chelsea Buns so make sure you have time to sit down for a cup of tea and a sweet treat.
York – 2 days
York is a beautiful city filled with Medieval charm. Visitors can expect to hear tales of ghosts, magic and bloodshed, all set amongst a maze of wonky shops, houses and independent restaurants.
The train from Cambridge to York takes on average 2 hrs 30 minutes and costs £41 for a one way ticket, just make sure you remember to get off the train at Peterborough and change onward to York.
If you are driving, the journey takes 3 hours and is a fairly boring drive up the A1. Be aware that on this stretch of road there are quite a few speed cameras.
Best hotels in York
Gray’s Court is a beautiful historic hotel dating back to 1091 with just 12 beautiful rooms with varying views. No.1 by GuestHouse is a charming boutique hotel just 10 minutes walk from York Minster, and my last recommendation is the delightful Middletons in York’s historic centre.
Things to do in York
York Minster – One of the world’s most magnificent hotels, York minster is an imposing site no matter where you are in York. Since the 7th century, the Minster has been at the centre of Christianity in the north of England and today visitors can go inside or climb up the tower and take in far reaching views.
The Shambles – Thought to be inspiration for J.K.Rowling’s Diagon Alley, the Shambles in York is a narrow street of independent shops, pubs and cafes.
Harry Potter walking tour – If you love the magic of Harry Potter then why not take a Harry Potter themed walking tour? Make your way around the city whilst shouting out answers to quizzes and games to earn points for your house. Along the way you will see the city’s hidden gems and you will also get time to browse the famous Harry Potter store in the Shambles.
Book your tickets here.
Walk along the city walls – Walk along a piece of Roman History and take in stunning views of York along the way, did you know these are the longest wall barriers in the country? Set aside a couple of hours to complete them!
Jorvik Viking Centre – The Vikings had a big influence on York, and who doesn’t want to see some fossilised Viking poo? Visitors will have fun learning about what life was like during the Viking settlement as part of an immersive experience that includes moving carriages, abcient artefacts, and real life bad smells!
Pre-book your tickets here.
Afternoon tea at Betty’s – Inspired by the Queen Mary ocean liner, Betty’s Tea Room is a must visit in York. The cafe tea room does not require reservations but if you want the tea in the iconic Belmont Room then make sure you pre-book via their website here.
Durham – 1 day
Surrounded by miles upon miles of countryside, Durham stands out high above the farmland that sits on its fringes. In the centre is a conservation area and a World Heritage Site that includes Durham Castle, Durham Cathedral and the buildings that sit between them.
You can take a train for as little as £9 that takes less than 45 minutes, it is worth checking via the Trainline what time the cheapest trains go as they all differ in cost.
Alternatively, the drive is straight up the A1 again so is pretty fast and simple, taking an hour and a half.
Where to stay in Durham
A few minutes walk from the main sights of Durham, the contemporary yet smart Hotel Indigo never fails to disappoint. Hotel Indigo sits in the refurbished Old Shire Hall just 5 minutes from the train station.
Things to do in Durham
Durham Cathedral – Part of a World Heritage site, Durham Cathedral was built by the Normans between the years 1093 and 1133. It is the oldest surviving building with such a large sone vaulted ceiling, whilst it isn’t the most beautiful or detailed, it is remarkable anyone of this era could create such a shape from stone. The cathedral’s cloisters acted as a double for Hogwarts in some of the Harry Potter films so has become a magnate for history buffs.
Beamish Museum – If you don’t have a car with you and you’re comfortable getting on the bus, the Beamish Museum is a great day out, bringing the history of North East England to life. Just take the bus from Durham Train Station (they leave regularly) and get off at the main stop in Chester-le-Street, you can then take the next bus from stop K (around every 15 minutes) direct to Beamish Museum.
Pre-book your ticket here.
Durham Castle – The history of Durham Castle dates back to 1072 and is now home to the University of Durham. It began as a typical motte and bailey castle and at the time of its construction and in the years after, the city was at risk of invasion by the Danes and the Scots.
Crook Hall Gardens – A series of gardens link together, each with their own style and character, all set against a backdrop with a Grade 1 listed medieval hall. There is much to see with a maze, orchard, secret walled garden, a moat teaming with wildlife, and stunning views over the city of Durham and its cathedral.
View opening times here.
Edinburgh – 3 days
Cobblestone streets, beautiful Gothic buildings, a 12th century castle and world class shopping makes Edinburgh one of the best cities in Europe. The city manages the perfect balance between old and new with a buzzing dining scene, charming boutique hotels, and a history that spans centuries.
In August the city sees the world’s largest arts festival, for Edinburgh isn’t famous just for its look, but hundreds of years of culture thanks to its writers, poets and comedians.
Edinburgh is the greenest city in the UK, it has large central gardens, a royal botanical garden, sprawling parkland and its own regal estate. This is the perfect city to explore on foot and get lost in.
The train takes around 1 hour 45 minutes and costs on average £25.
Want to drive? Hop back on the A1, yes the A1 road is very long! The journey time is 2 and a half to 3 hours.
Best places to stay in Edinburgh
For the most recognisable stay, try the Balmoral Hotel with its iconic clock tower standing high above Edinburgh Waverley Station. For something a little more dark but magical, the Witchery stands at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and could almost be mistaken for the set of a Harry Potter movie…
Boutique Hotel Dunstane Houses has been winning awards for years for its beautiful guest rooms that spread across two grand townhouses.
If you want something totally different, why not stay on a boat? Fingal is a luxury floating hotel permanently berthed on Edinburgh’s waterfront, earning itself multiple awards including hotel of the year and UK’s most romantic hotel.
If you’re wanting more of a home from home, there are some beautiful Air Bnb’s in Edinburgh such as the City Centre Loft overlooking the Royal Mile.
Things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle – Once a mighty fortress and defender of the nation, Edinburgh Castle is now a world-famous visitor attraction that dominates the city’s skyline.
Guided tours are provided by knowledgable castle stewards, there is an audio guide tour also available in eight languages, taking you on a tour around the castle, explaining its architecture and dramatic history.
Pre-book your tickets here.
Palace of Holyroodhouse – Explore the King’s Edinburgh residence, standing at the end of the city’s famous Royal Mile. Holyroodhouse has been the principal royal residence in Scotland since the 16th century, and is a setting for state occasions and official entertaining.
Pre-book your tickets here.
Spend a morning in Dean Village – Just five minutes away from Princes Street, Dean Village is a beautiful oasis sitting on the Water of Leith. The village was once where the milling of water mills took place, something that visitors can still see evidence of today.
Close by is the Dean Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art of which many of their exhibitions are free.
Royal Botanic Garden – The Royal Botanic Garden is just one mile from city centre, offering visitors peace and tranquillity within 72 acres of stunning scenery. This is one of the finest botanic gardens in the world, offering spectacular views of the capital’s skyline. The history of the garden dates back over 350 years and includes the Chinese Hillside, world-famous Rock Garden oand magnificent Giant Redwood trees in the Woodland Garden.
The garden is free to visit, except the glasshouses.
Sunset at Calton Hill – This beautiful viewpoint is all the more stunning with a sunset, a popular activity for both locals and travellers alike.
The Real Mary Kings Close – The Real Mary King’s Close is a warren of hidden streets and spaces that the everyday people of Edinburgh don’t often see. Back in the 1600’s, Mary King’s Close and its neighbouring Closes were once the heart of Edinburgh and some of the busiest streets.
These streets are now hidden away underground, shrouded in myths and mysteries, with blood curdling tales of ghosts and murders, and of plague victims being walled up and left to die. Research and archaeological evidence has revealed to us what life truly was like back in the 15th century. Visitors and residents of Edinburgh can now experience a tour through the Medieval streets and listen to real-life fascinating stories along the way. For added atmosphere, do the tour at night time!